Are you ready to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the gym? If so, you’ll need bodybuilding’s equivalent of boxing’s time-honored two-punch combo. In boxing, it’s said that a straight cross will take you around the block while a solid stinging jab will take you around the world which is to underscore the fundamental importance of an ever-present jab and the secondary significance of the more powerful cross.
In the bodybuilding arena, this most basic two-punch attack takes the form of high-grade BCAAs and quality whey proteins.
As opposed to the jab/cross combo, however, the respective importance of BCAAs and whey is less easily determined.
In fact, the balance of research indicates that when aiming to efficiently and effectively build impressive amounts of quality muscle, both are of equal importance. No longer is whey protein bodybuilding’s ever-reliable jab nor are the BCAAs to be used only when attempting to deliver a full-blown anabolic assault on specific training days (or whenever you are willing to shell out for another supply).
If you didn’t already know it, BCAAs and whey are to be used concurrently and with equal consistently – for different reasons but ultimately for the same overriding objective: to keep muscle growth on the up-and-up. This article will explain the relative importance of each and why both must be included for maximum results.
As bodybuilders have known for eons, supplemental BCAAs and whey, when taken in conjunction with one another, provide an unparalleled edge in improving muscle protein synthesis, enhancing recovery, and providing the raw materials for muscle growth. Indeed, it is the extent to which each of these essential factors is engaged that ultimately dictates muscle mass increases.
Without the right building materials each of these growth prerequisites is severely compromised.
Without a well-timed ratio of BCAAs and whey proteins, exerting maximum effort in the gym could even be considered a waste of time (that is, if muscle is to be increased beyond mere maintenance levels).
The problem is that many of us, remembering that both BCAAs and proteins are also found in foods, neglect to supplement with either one or both of these workout essentials – a costly mistake that’s likely to fast place the body in a muscle-depleting catabolic state.
If you’re going to build muscle you have to go all in. As will soon be explained, supplemental BCAAs and whey proteins allow us to do just that by providing benefits that exceed those to be derived from whole foods and wishful thinking alone.
This means that to fully optimize your muscle building mission, to create the perfect anabolic state in which muscle growth may continuing unabated, it’s not simply important but mandatory that both these supplements be used to full effect. Here’s why.
Serving as a trigger for muscle protein synthesis, a major substrate for newly synthesized proteins, and an alternative fuel source for high intensity workouts are the BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids), which consist of three essential aminos: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine.12 While each is uniquely designed to stimulate muscle growth, Leucine is the most instrumental in enhancing muscle protein synthesis by way of signaling a profound growth response in muscle tissue.1, 2, 7
While much is known about the anabolic, muscle activating effects of the BCAAs, it’s the precise mechanisms that underlie their anabolic benefits that, for many, remain a mystery.
By taking BCAAs specifically before, during and between workouts, a trigger effect is essentially created which, in turn, primes the muscles for growth. For the coveted anabolic state of muscle protein synthesis to take place, the mTOR pathway (the principal cellular signaling mechanism for turning on muscle protein synthesis and a profound regulator of muscle regeneration) must first be stimulated. The BCAAs (notably Leucine) are specifically designed to activate this pathway, fundamentally to keep muscle degeneration from occurring.1, 10
One study showed that after 12 weeks of lifting weights, a group given 4g of Leucine per day improved on almost every indicator of muscle growth.6
For this group, strength gains were approximately 30% higher compared to the placebo subjects. Muscle mass also increased by more than 40% for those taking the Leucine. These results occurred despite the fact that both groups adhered to the exact same training and dietary stipulations.
Furthermore, in a landmark study Shimomura and colleagues found that when taken pre-workout, BCAA supplementation was shown to strongly attenuate the breakdown of muscle proteins during exercise.
These researchers also determined what bodybuilders have known all along – that Leucine strongly promotes protein synthesis in skeletal muscle.11
This study also noted that during exercise BCAA stores are rapidly oxidized, which may lead to a catabolic state in which muscle growth becomes more and more difficult to achieve. Thus, by supplementing with BCAAs before training, such oxidation is prevented from occurring while the likelihood that muscle will respond favorably to the training stimulus is correspondingly improved.
Aside from triggering muscle protein synthesis, the BCAAs have also been scientifically proven to enhance mass gains by reducing markers of muscle damage, driving down post-training soreness, and optimizing the recovery of muscle function.5
An additionally important way to increase muscle growth is to improve the anabolic hormone profile during periods of high intensity training (this also includes reducing the aforementioned markers of muscle damage). By improving the intra-workout testosterone to cortisol ratio, BCAAs have been shown to do just that.9 Thus, the floodgates for more muscle gains, faster recovery, and greater strength and performance improvements are thrown wide open.
In the past, many believed that BCAAs were best taken pre-workout. In more recent times, intra along with pre-workout BCAA dosing has become the norm. Now it’s believed that by having a surplus of BCAAs floating around one’s system, 24/7, muscle growth can be magnified to an even greater extent.
Indeed, due to specific sensors whose job it is to detect BCAAs in muscle tissue, and the activation of key enzymes involved with protein synthesis post-workout,
the body, via more frequent BCAA supplementation, is to a greater degree anabolically primed for ongoing lean muscle gains –
provided, of course, an optimal ratio of BCAAs is supplied throughout the day.1,2, 3, 7
By taking in high quality BCAAs throughout the day (not just before and during training) muscle gains are believed to be accelerated by overcoming a process called the refractory response, in which muscle protein synthesis is thought to drop despite high blood amino acid levels.8
Here, by spacing meals apart (3-4 hourly), muscle is supposedly re-sensitized to the anabolic effects of amino acids. However, by taking BCAAs (complete with 2-3g of Leucine) between meals, a greater than normal spike in blood amino levels is achieved which, in turn, triggers further protein synthesis without diminishing the sensitizing effects of the periodic feedings. This means more continuous growth.
That BCAAs spike around-the-clock protein synthesis is beyond dispute.
The next step in the mass building process, then, is to supply sufficient quality proteins, at the right times, to fully engage this crucial anabolic state.
Having been signaled to build more muscle via a hefty infusion of BCAAs, the body now craves a readily absorbed and highly bioavailable form of protein. The signal has been given, the muscles have been primed, and now the body must, with the right raw materials, respond accordingly.
Most bodybuilders are acutely aware of the importance of regular high protein feedings. Without a surplus of high biological value proteins from which to build muscle, intensive training is pointless and may even be counterproductive (muscle depleting rather than growth enhancing).
While a good balance of proteins is needed for optimal repair and performance enhancement, there remains a gold standard source of this most coveted of bodybuilding macros: whey, or, more precisely, the purest and most rapidly absorbed form of this superstar nutrient.
Once protein synthesis has been engaged, the body draws from the raw materials it needs to construct new muscle tissue.
Should the right materials not be available, the body will begin to enter a catabolic state and commence scavenging protein from existing muscle tissue.
In short, once the signal to grow has been given, the body needs the requisite building blocks to get the job done. Without the right building blocks, it’s impossible to grow even an ounce of muscle much less realize one’s full genetic potential for quality mass building.
Whey protein is ideal at such times as it quite simply allows more of its protein to be utilized in a much more rapid fashion compared to other protein sources (it’s both highly bioavailable and rapidly absorbed). Indeed, the extra protein the muscles receive from whey is of the highest biological value (the measure of the proportion of absorbed protein from a food which becomes incorporated into muscle protein).4
Besides increasing muscle size and strength, whey protein also functions as an immune enhancer, appetite suppressant, and stress reducer, all essential elements in procuring a lean, muscular physique.
By taking it following the ingestion of BCAAs, whey’s many benefits can be greatly enhanced.
As bodybuilders have continued to progress at a rapid rate via BCAA ingestion and scientific minds have continued to delve into the wonders of BCAA supplementation, bodybuilding supplement manufacturers have become more and more cognizant of the many benefits provided by these key muscle-building aminos – in particular, the extent to which the crucial signaling pathway mTOR is activated via Leucine to produce an unrivaled anabolic response.
Thus the BCAAs, along with whey protein, have become one of a select few mandatory workout products that all lifters respond well to.
But not all BCAA and whey products are created equal and, as we will soon discover, the quality and potency of both must be sufficient to keep muscle gains on the increase.
To have any real tangible benefit, a BCAA product must firstly be of the purest quality with zero non-BCAA aminos (such as the commonly used Glutamine masquerading as an active BCAA).
The ratio of specific aminos is also of fundamental importance with research from the Nobel-Prize winning Karolinska Institute showing that only a high-dosage BCAA product with a Leucine/Valine/Isoleucine ratio of 9:6:5 will activate protein synthesis to any meaningful degree.
For best results the BCAAs must be supplied in sufficient enough dosages to spark continuous muscle growth.
No less than three 3g servings of Leucine per day (45% of active amino per serving as compared to 30% and 25% for Valine and Isoleucine respectively) will produce the desired results. If the product does not provide over 8g of BCAAs per serving it’s not going to get the job done.
For protein, a rapidly absorbed quality whey-isolate with zero sugars and a hefty complement of BCAAs (over 5g per serving) provides the best results when taken in conjunction with a BCAA product comprising the above-listed specifications. At least 27g of active protein per 30g serving of whey is optimal (proving a 90% protein yield).
Training the muscles to full capacity creates a requirement for proper recovery and repair. Here, in its unparalleled wisdom, the body quickly gets to work compensating for the demands placed upon it. However, as smart as the body is, the inroads made into recovery via heavy resistance training simply cannot be addressed without the aforementioned raw materials for growth.
The BCAAs are best taken before and during training, a prime assimilation period given insulin-stimulated nutrient uptake is increased at such times. Whey protein, also beneficial at any time, is particularly effective when taken post-workout, when muscle tissue (via heightened insulin sensitivity) is especially receptive to incorporating it into new muscle tissue.
It must also be remembered that a surplus of BCAAs, taken between meals, creates a trigger effect which prompts continuous muscle protein synthesis. For this reason, many elite athletes have taken to adding a couple of scoops to a gallon of water and sipping this concoction periodically throughout the day. Adding BCAAs to water also has the added benefit of making water easier to drink, thus encouraging the lifter to drink more of this vastly underrated muscle-builder.
While year-round remains the best time to keep BCAA and whey protein intake high, the importance of these two-punch anabolic activators becomes ever more crucial during the pre-contest period.
It’s when cardio is high, training is more intensive than ever, and a restricted diet often means less nutritional support that the BCAAs and whey really come into their own. Typically it’s easier to stay anabolic in the offseason when the body is less prone to losing muscle via the stringent methods often employed for shredding. This anabolic shortfall can be corrected with advanced level BCAAs and whey proteins.
Without quality BCAA and whey protein supplementation, building muscle and losing fat (a testing task at the best of times) is made a great deal more difficult. By incorporating this potent two-punch combo both in the offseason and pre-contest, muscle protein synthesis can be kept consistently high, recovery can be boosted, hormone balance can be enhanced, and performance can be increased. After all, to become heavyweight champion of the gym you must stick with the fundamentals, the go-to products that guarantee phenomenal progress and lasting success.
- Apro, W., et al. Influence of supplementation with branched-chain amino acids in combination with resistance exercise on p70S6 kinase phosphorylation in resting and exercising human skeletal muscle. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2010 Nov;200(3):237-48.
- Blomstrand, E., et al. Branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise. J Nutr. 2006 Jan;136(1 Suppl):269S-73S. (protein synthesis)
- Håkan K. R., et al. Branched-chain amino acids increase p70S6k phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 287:1-7, 2004.
- Hoffman, J. R., et al. Protein – Which is Best? J Sports Sci Med. 2004 Sep; 3(3): 118–130.
- Howatson, G., et al. Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Jul 12;9:20
- Ispoglou, T., et al. Daily L-leucine supplementation in novice trainees during a 12-week weight training program. Int J Sports Physiol Perform.2011 Mar;6(1):38-50.
- Kimball, S. R., et al. Signaling pathways and molecular mechanisms through which branched-chain amino acids mediate translational control of protein synthesis. J Nutr. 2006 Jan;136(1 Suppl):227S-31S.
- Paddon-Jones, D., et al. Exogenous amino acids stimulate human muscle anabolism without interfering with the response to mixed meal ingestion. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2005 Apr;288(4)
- Sharp, C. P., et al. Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1125-30.
- Shimomura, Y., et al. Nutraceutical Effects of Branched-Chain Amino Acids on Skeletal Muscle. Nutr. 136:529S-532S, February 2006
- Shimomura, Y., et al. Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise. Nutr.134:1583S-1587S, June 2004
- Wilkinson, D. J., et al. Effects of leucine and its metabolite β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate on human skeletal muscle protein metabolism. J Physiol.2013 Jun 1;591(11):2911-23.